MOGADISHU: A French commando raid in Somalia to free a captive intelligence agent ended in the deaths of 17 Islamists and a French soldier. France said the hostage also died in the failed rescue, but the man's captors denied he had been killed and claimed Saturday to have seized a second soldier.
Confusion surrounded early reports of the botched rescue of the French agent, known by his code-name Denis Allex. He was captured in the east African country on July 14, 2009, and last seen in a video released in October pleading for the French president to help him.
But it was clear that a dangerous raid the French defense minister said was planned with the utmost of care had gone horribly wrong.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Allex was killed by his captors and that one French soldier was missing and one dead, along with 17 Islamists. The Defense Ministry earlier said two commandos were killed in the fighting in the Somali town of Bulomarer.
"It was an extremely dangerous mission," Le Drian said. "Everything indicates Denis Allex was killed."
The militant Islamist group al-Shabab, which held Allex for more than three years, said Saturday that he remained alive and in its custody, as was a new captive - a French commando wounded in fighting.
Le Drian said the operation in Somalia was unrelated to the French offensive overnight in Mali to drive back Islamist militants in the west African country. There are seven French hostages in Mali.
Residents of Bulomarer described hearing explosions and gunfire from what they called an al-Shabab base. An al-Shabab official said that fighting began after helicopters dropped off French soldiers.
"Five helicopters attacked a house in the town. They dropped soldiers off on the ground so that they could reach their destination ... but fighting has broken out," he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The French attack was swift and loud, residents said.
"We heard a series of explosions followed by gunfire just seconds after a helicopter flew over the town," Mohamed Ali, a resident of Bulomarer, told The Associated Press by telephone. "We don't know exactly what happened, but the place was an al-Shabab base and checkpoint."
The al-Shabab official said some soldiers were killed, but the group held only one dead French soldier. Later, the Islamist group released a statement saying that Allex "remains safe and far from the location of the battle." It said there would be a verdict in his case in two days.
Allex was kidnapped from a hotel in Mogadishu, Somalia, on July 14, 2009 with a colleague who later escaped. They were in Somalia to train government forces, which are fighting Islamist militiamen.
In October, French President Francois Hollande pledged to "use all means" to contact "anyone who can help free our hostages."
In 2009, a Frenchman held hostage by pirates off the Somali coast was killed in the crossfire during a commando rescue on his captive sailboat. The man's family was rescued.
And in 2011, two French hostages kidnapped in Niger were killed by their captors as French troops closed in for a rescue.